A place of ghosts

Lebanon, my Lebanon: A stirring new photography book sparks Robert Fisk’s memories

From ancient groves where he once dodged bullets to peaceful mountain ranges, from embattled politicians to wise-cracking locals, Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, finds his memories of 34 years living in Lebanon brought into poignant relief by a monumental new photography book.

By Robert Fisk, Sunday, 21 November 2010

During a war, you never believe it will end. And when it does end – as Lebanon’s civil conflict concluded just over 20 years ago – you cannot recreate the war you have lived through. I recall once, in 1995, driving up into the Chouf mountains, south-east of Beirut, for lunch, and breathing in the scent of wood and forest and remembering that the very first day of my reporting assignment – in 1976, near the start of the war – I had driven this same road and smelled the same trees and, despite the gunmen at the checkpoints and the bullet-spattered villages, had been overwhelmed by the beauty of this tiny-vast country. The colours, the high sierras, the dark snows of Mount Sannine glimmering to the north – for it is the spine of mountains down the centre of Lebanon that give this country its grandeur and immensity – have witnessed so much violence that the wars of antiquity must be recalled to put into perspective the hatreds of more recent killings. And it was on that morning of peace, 15 years ago, that I suddenly ‘ realised I had not thought of the war – the civil war that took 150,000 lives – for many days. I was cured. 

Or was I? Max Milligan’s imperishable photographs of Lebanon – and I have to say that he has sought out things that I have either never seen or have forgotten in the 34 years I have lived here – do not avoid the war. A school crushed by Israel’s 1982 invasion, a building peppered with Syrian bullet holes, a Beirut apartment block so smashed it still looks like Irish lace, Beaufort Castle – ruined by both Palestinian and Israeli attackers – are caught with an almost cynical lens, as though the pictures have captured the humour of the Lebanese. There is a wonderful moment at the start, when Milligan recalls a moment at a friend’s home when a television presenter was warning of the dangers of microbes on paper cash:

“Always wash your hands after handling it,” she advised.  

“Thank God we haven’t got any money!” shouted my friend’s father.

When you know a country well, you can become possessive. So I searched for what was wrong with Milligan’s pictures. Well, the Palestinians – up to 350,000 of them, although there may be only 200,000 left in reality – have been virtually “disappeared” in these pictures, their slums and refugee hovels photographically irrelevant. Yes, I know a book on Lebanon should be about the Lebanese. But there are plenty of Bedouin farmers in these pages, men and women who simply acknowledge no nationality and ignore the frontiers which we colonialist masters stitched across their deserts and mountains. One day – speak it not in Lebanon, of course – these Palestinians or their children may also become Lebanese. That, of course, will be the day that the Americans and Israelis finally obliterate the Palestinians’ UN-mandated “right of return”, when Lebanon will have to be paid billions to give them passports – the Lebanese, I fear, might accept – and when Lebanon will become (because the Palestinians are mostly Sunnis, with only a sprinkling of Christians who have their own camp in east Beirut) an undeniably Muslim country. It already is, but since no one has dared hold a census since 1932, everyone has to pretend that the Christians are still the majority when they are, in fact, probably only 30 per cent.  

And of course, being a loco enthusiast, I have to tell Max that his wonderful photograph of “Ottoman trains” in Tripoli (page 23) – a spray of bright-green weeds growing in the front of a boiler – are actually old steamers from the Kaiser’s Reichsbahn, handed over to the French as part of Germany’s 1919 First World War Versailles reparations and brought to Lebanon by the French mandate several years after the Ottoman empire ceased to exist. But nit-picking is part of the fun when you admire the work.  

There are some great memories for me here. There is a picture of two Maronite Catholic bishops in animated conversation at Bkerke (page 21). I know the one on the right very well; he used to have dreams of becoming the ‘ Patriarch, but ancient Nasrallah Sfeir, still alive and still hearty (if a little vague on dates) simply lived too long to have pretenders to the throne.  

Then there’s an image of a housing block in Tripoli, north Lebanon (page 25) – suitably crumbling and ill-painted but with its own grubby charm – in which a woman looks from her home at election time. And above her, to the left, is a vast election poster for a local bespectacled MP, staring down at her with a creditor’s concern. I know him, too. He’s Najib Mikati, a businessman who used to run a private phone company during the war, which would connect me to the world via a Manhattan telephone number. If you wanted to call The Independent’s Lebanon correspondent, you had to dial New York (which is very Lebanese, if you come to think about it). Mikati went on to become a prime minister after the collapse of Omar Karami’s pro-Syrian government – following Rafiq Hariri’s murder in 2005 – a brief taste of power which just might have spared Lebanon more years of war. Mikati, admired by the Syrians as well as by most Lebanese, stepped down in favour of a new prime minister, having played the classic role of Lebanese middle-man. No wonder he studies his Tripoli electorate.  

There’s one other picture that I looked at for all of five minutes. It shows a faint moon arising among the dusk-smothered rocks at Ain Zhalta, a protection of juniper trees around the picture (page 25). I know those rocks. In 1982, Syrian tank units were ordered to block the Israeli armour moving up towards the neighbouring village of Ain Dara and the Damascus highway. The Israelis bombed many of the tanks to pieces while Syrian helicopters slid from behind rock outcrops and shot the Israelis to bits as well. I arrived just as the battle was ending and lay behind these same rocks, too frightened to write. I tied a white handkerchief to my car in the hope that no one would shoot at me but after a ceasefire – the Israelis stop when they get hurt, just like the Syrians – a Syrian Special Forces officer came to me and in an angry voice shouted, “No white flags!” And he tore my handkerchief from the radio aerial of the car. Behind him, they were heaping Syrian soldiers – headless, armless, very dead – on to the back of a truck. I was glad to see this new, bucolic picture, the way nature had (cliché here) reclaimed the place. Are there ghosts?  

Of course. Lebanon is a place of ghosts. That’s why I think the rich party so hard and the poor make jokes. There’s a massive stone eagle in a Chouf cemetery at Baakline to commemorate the Ba’athist revolution in Iraq. There are Christian chapels in Keserwan so old that you can see how the Arab invaders reacted to the shrines of saints: they gouged their eyes out with knives. And the names come back like phantoms; a gentle scene at Sir Al Dinniyeh. That’s where the first al-Qa’ida men made their appearance in Lebanon in 2000, scarcely a year before their move to New York: young, bearded men – I went to one of their funerals and met his parents – who lived in caves and studied the Koran amid the frost of the far north of Lebanon, then came down from the mountains to attack the Lebanese army.  

There are the massive stone coffins of Phoenician and Roman Lebanon which I saw being blasted beside the museum during the war and, of course, the columns of Baalbek and the temple of Bacchus (which was, yes, damaged by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a Palestinian when a Syrian military unit – uninterested in antiquity – set up camp in the ancient ruins in 1976). A man in Tyre, a smuggler who is now dead, offered me figurines which his sons had dug from a 3,000-year old grave, pottery figures of children, and then ended, beseechingly, “Mr Robert, Mr Robert, would you like a Roman tomb?” along with promises to find a boat to ship it to London. I got this kind of thing from Syrian dope and arms dealers – they were obsessed with Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for shipment – but I’d never been offered a tomb before. Imagine, a Phoenician sailing boat moving majestically beneath Tower Bridge, a grey stone sarcophagus on the deck.  

That’s the thing about Lebanon. All these ghosts haunting all these people of Sunni, Shiite, Maronite, Orthodox, Druze faiths, living together and expressing their mutual love the more they are afraid of each other. That’s why they absolutely have to dream.

 ‘The Lebanon’, by Max Milligan, is published by Idlewild, priced £75. For more of his work, visit maxmilligan.com

From http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/lebanon-my-lebanon-a-stirring-new-photography-book-sparks-robert-fiskrsquos-memories-2136898.html or http://ind.pn/aDke6f or http://tinyurl.com/2cpy53d

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2010/11/20/a-place-of-ghosts/

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